A close look at newsgaming with Latoya Peterson

26 May 2016

Peterson“I think news games will really take off in a few more years, as people who are more comfortable with games in their daily life assume leadership positions in newsrooms.” This optimistic opinion comes from Latoya Peterson, Deputy Editor of Digital Innovation for ESPN's The Undefeated. A pioneer in newsgaming, she produced a YouTube series called Girl Gamers.

Latoya will speak at the GEN Summit next month where she will discuss Newsgaming: A New Media Playground?”. In this interview, she talks about how the newsgaming landscape has changed in the past decade, how it can evolve and how it can become a real protagonist in the newsroom. “The key is to start hiring people in newsrooms who know a lot about making games and love the news. The most creative solution to this problem may lie in how we define (and hire) journalists.”

What drove you to newsgaming in the first place?

I've been a gamer for many years, far longer than I've been in the news business. I am interested in the transformational power of games for storytelling and how games are always teaching us to understand systems. Games, like news, are about context and they seem like a natural fit.

GEN Summit Inline Banner For Latoya Peterson

How has newsgaming evolved in the past few years? What potential do you see for storytelling?

The first news game I remember playing was Darfur is Dying. It was done by mtvU about the crisis in Darfur. I wouldn't say it was a perfectly executed game. But this was back in 2006, and I still remember all the key issues raised by the game, from the Janjaweed to the problems with gathering water and needed supplies. That game was simple, but powerful and really shaped how much attention I paid to the crisis, more than any celebrity endorsement. The tools have gotten more sophisticated but the core ideas are still the same — to have people experience something they normally would not.

Darfur Copia"Darfur is Dying"

What excites you about the future? How do you expect newsgaming to evolve in the next two years? In the next five?

The playing field is opening up. You have tools to make games that only take a few hours to learn; there are so many more people pursuing game design; and the fluency around gaming is increasing. One of my favourite places to be is Indiecade. There, a group of game developers from all kinds of backgrounds build all kinds of games. I'd love to see an Indiecade for news games. The JoLT summit that American University put on last year feels like the beta version of that vision.

Who are newsgaming teams made up of? Do journalists, developers, designers and others all work together? And what about the audience demographics? 

Newsgaming teams are anyone with a journalistic idea to implement. Ideally, journalists, developers, and designers work together, but as time goes on, we will see more journalist-developers and developer-designers. There isn't a strict recipe, it's more like a hackathon — assemble a lot of people with awesome skills and let them find a way. Newsgames have an audience that is all over the map. The audience for each game will be different. People assume the newsgames would appeal to the young, but that isn't the case: a game like BudgetHero appeals to people who care a lot about civic budgets. Ideally, in newsgames (like in journalism) you have a diverse team, which will help your reporting reach a diverse audience.

Budgethero2 Copia"Budget Hero"

Can any story be told through newsgaming? Or are there specific topics that are better told and experienced through this medium?

I honestly don't think there is a story that doesn't work for a game, even things that are sad or serious. People think games and play must always be happy, goofy, or fun, but if you play games you know that they unlock a range of emotions. New experiences are possible through games — a couple years ago, I saw "That Dragon, Cancer" at Tribeca. I wouldn't quite call that a game, but it was a very powerful experience told through a game platform. The experience is mostly sad, interspersed with some happier moments. There is no story that is off limits: it all depends on the execution of the story.

What do you think about new VR wearables like Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard: will they help the spread of newsgaming, helping to create more engaging experiences?

Yes! The VR revolution (2.0) is awesome and exciting. We will look back in a decade and be amazed at the progress.

You’ll talk about newsgaming at the upcoming GEN Summit in Vienna. Do you think the challenges that newsgaming is facing today (steep learning curve, high costs, workflow) can be overcome?

Of course, but it's a matter of commitment. As gaming started to reach a golden period of influence, it ran up against the decline of newsrooms and a period of major instability in our industry. In an environment of layoffs and low morale, it is hard to focus on bigger, ambitious projects that are heavy on the upfront investment. And for many people, what makes a good game is still a hard question to answer. There is more of a formula for how to make a good story. But games are a little tougher, and even if you combine the same ingredients again, it could still come out differently. The key is to start hiring people in newsrooms who know a lot about making games and love the news. The most creative solution to this problem may lie in how we define (and hire) journalists.

Dragon"That Dragon, Cancer"

Some journalists have prejudice against newsgaming, they think it’s not part of their brief. How long do you think it will take for newsgames to be considered a genuine branch of journalism and not a mere experimentation? Five years? Ten years?

Some journalists had prejudice against Twitter and social reporting (and some still do). This kind of hand-wringing also existed when television was introduced as a medium for communication. Journalism is a vibrant, evolving practice, not some staid set of standards wedded to just one format. As we understand games, virtual reality, augmented reality, and blended reality more, journalism will evolve with our understanding. I think news games will really take off in a few more years, as people who are more comfortable with games in their daily life assume leadership positions in newsrooms. The adoption curve for VR and AR is longer — maybe a decade from now we will be able to see a mature environment for newsgames in other dimensions.

GEN Summit Inline Banner For Latoya Peterson

The video game industry has been a male-only environment for a while. Only now do we see girls stepping in. Do you see the same patterns in newsgaming? Or is it mostly male journalists who produce this kind of content?

The video game industry was never all male. The problem was women were written out of history. One of the most famous games in history, Centipede, was designed by a woman named Dona Bailey. There are fewer women in the industry, this is true, but a large part of the discrepancy is that their accomplishments were not recognised or properly credited.

Newsgames as well are dominated by male perspectives, and I think it is a collective responsibility to ensure we are elevating the voices of women in this space as well. Nonny de la Peña is a luminary, and she has been recognised by many outlets and publications as the pioneer of immersive journalism. It is our job to ensure that as the years go by, we do not stop telling Nonny's story, or the stories of other women like her.

Latoya CopiaCentipede, screenshot from YouTube

What three key pieces of advice would you give to news teams wanting to get into newsgaming?

Play. You cannot make a good game if you do not play them.

Take your time. A good game is not built in a week (though magic can happen at hackathons). Commit to the process in the way you would commit to a long form, investigative piece.

Idea first. What part of your idea or pitch is inherently playable? What do you imagine the player doing? Gaming is not a passive medium, so try to put yourself in the player's shoes at every part of the process.


Latoya Peterson will speak at the sixth annual GEN Summit in Vienna, Austria on 15 June: she will moderate and take part in a panel about “Newsgaming: A New Media Playground?” Register here.